by John W. Ritenbaugh
Last month's "Personal" began this Ten Commandments series with the first commandment, which is most directly concerned with loyalty to the true God who is Creator, Ruler, Sustainer and Provider of this universe. He is the One who gives life and "[upholds] all things by the word of His power" (Hebrews 1:3). His holiness is beyond the grasp of our imagination, and He is in all things worthy of our undivided worship.
We tend to think of worship solely as something confined to a church service. Worship, however, is one's response to his god, and it extends into every facet of life. My concern is with the effect of wrong worship, whether out of ignorance, misdirected zeal or rebellion. What is the effect? Without the true worship of the true God, the standards and the ideals of faith and conduct in moral, ethical and spiritual areas are left totally to human experience. Human experience is narrow, fallible and selfish.
Romans 1:28 from the Revised English Bible leaves no doubt that this is true: "Thus, because they have not seen fit to acknowledge God, He has given them up to their own depraved way of thinking, and this leads them to break all rules of conduct." Proverbs 29:18 from the Living Bible adds, "Where there is ignorance of God, crime [sin] runs wild; but what a wonderful thing it is for a nation to know and keep His laws."
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul gives a brief but appalling overview of the effect of people turning their backs on the Creator God. Mankind has worshiped the creation more than the Creator, and thus, God gave mankind over to vile affections and to a mind devoid of true judgment—his own natural mind. Since man's experiences shaped his judgment regarding conduct, his ability to judge truth became vague and led to the horrible perversions Paul lists. Today, the world groans with the weight of bearing the fruit of this idolatry.
Our own personal experience confirms the validity of these verses. Paul lists the consequences of a purely secular mind, which resulted from leaving the True Source of right standards out of our lives. He shows that when we follow the path described, we not only lose godliness but also true humanity.
Contrasting Sources of Judgment
It is good to contrast this very human trait with Jesus' example in John 5:30: "I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me." Clearly, the people of Romans 1 rejected God and proceeded to engage in every depravity. Conversely, Jesus did not force His own will on God, and the result was unclouded, righteous judgment. He had no difficulty clearly distinguishing between right and wrong. How can a person even begin to know the truth in moral and spiritual areas if he has the wrong source?
At a Feast of Tabernacles not long thereafter, Jesus had another confrontation with the Jews on the same general topic:
Jesus answered them and said, "My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority. He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who seeks the glory of the One who sent Him is true, and no unrighteousness is in Him. Did not Moses give you the law, yet none of you keeps the law? Why do you seek to kill Me?" The people answered and said, "You have a demon. Who is seeking to kill You?" ... [Jesus answered,] "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." (John 7:16-20, 24)
These people were so blinded to right and wrong they could not even perceive the murderous intent of their anger! But this is not at all unusual. How many truly grasp the destructiveness in the spirit of competition, the lust inherent in acquisitiveness or pornography, or the idolatry in Sabbath-breaking?
Millions, perhaps billions, of people fully believe that their god allows them to annihilate a neighboring people. They base such beliefs on their enemies having a different religion, skin color, language, culture or level of prosperity. They feel deprived and justified in taking their neighbors' land, wealth and lives. These ideas did not come from the Creator God!
Jeremiah 25:5-7 introduces a phrase that helps illustrate more clearly how important the source of our standards is:
"[My prophets] said, ‘Repent now everyone of his evil way and his evil doings, and dwell in the land that the LORD has given to you and your fathers forever and ever. Do not go after other gods to serve them and worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands; and I will not harm you.' Yet you have not listened to Me," says the LORD, "that you might provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt."
"The works of your hands" indicates something that comes from man's mind, not the Creator's. Their gods were their own creation, even as their standards were their assessment of right and wrong. Regardless of how men approached life, whether religious or irreligious, atheistic or agnostic, their gods and standards came from minds not in contact with the true God.
This has interesting and devastating ramifications. The nature of idolatry is such that its effect is more subtle than with other sins. The trauma it produces is usually obscured by the penalties brought on by other sins that spring from the original idolatry. Sometimes, the penalty comes so much later that it is virtually impossible for the carnal mind to connect it to the idolatry that began the process.
But the effect of breaking commandment number one is to break number two. Once a person is no longer worshiping the Creator, he must put something else in His place. Man will worship something, and as we have seen, what he worships is almost invariably himself! Even when he is worshiping the works of his hands, he is worshiping himself because he created his idol.
"To Whom Then Will You Liken God?"
God addresses Isaiah 40:9-31 to Zion, a type of the church, and so we need to consider this carefully. In a poetic way, it describes both attributes and works of God. Twice it asks, "To whom then will you liken God . . . ?" Can He be like any idol a cunning man might devise? An idol must be empowered by a man, who is himself a creation. Man is weak, puny, insignificant—powerless to give life to his creations and ignorant in comparison to the great Creator God.
The natural mind cries out for something to "help" it worship God, but nothing in man's limited imagination can measure up. So any time a man devises an image of god other than the true God, a predictable effect will occur. Asaph writes of this effect in Psalm 78:40-41: "How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel." A human mind will limit God. How can anyone rationally think that a creation of man can be any greater than man?
II Timothy 3:1-2, 5 adds a sobering note for those of us living at the end. "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will . . . [have] a form of godliness but [deny] its power. And from such people turn away!" Limiting God creates idolatry because we must turn to another source if we want to be delivered from what is unsettling us. Do we limit God by failing to use His counsel in dating, marriage, child training, healing, or tithing because we fear it will not work or by refusing to humble ourselves to try His way?
The real basis of idolatry, other than ignorance, is that self-willed man refuses to surrender himself to worship God as He commands. Remember, worship is our response to God, and it occurs in many ways every day. For example, to tithe is not only to obey, but also to worship, since it is our response to God's command.
The Way We Worship
Exodus 20:4-6 presents the second commandment:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Many do not perceive the difference between the first and second commandments. The first stresses the uniqueness of the Creator God, who is the Source of truth, right values and standards that will produce right relationships. It deals with what we worship. An idol is something we make and assign value to here on earth, but God comes into our life from beyond this physical realm.
The second commandment covers a specific area of idolatry, God's spirituality. Jesus says we must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). God wants us to worship, be devoted and respond to what He is and what He is doing, not what we think He looks like. He wants us to emulate His character and the way He lives. The second commandment deals with the way we worship.
The second commandment's most obvious aspect governs the use of physical "helps" or "aids" in worshiping the invisible, spiritual God. It prohibits the use of anything that represents God or could become an object of veneration. It forbids any kind of likeness of Christ such as crucifixes, pictures and statues.
Moses expounds on this in Deuteronomy 4:15-20:
Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage. But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be His people, His inheritance, as you are this day.
Since they saw nothing of the God who liberated them and whom they now were commanded to worship, anything they contrived to represent Him would be a boldfaced lie. No one else has seen God in His glory either, so absolutely no one can even begin to catch even the essence of a true representation of Him. Nothing could even come close to a resemblance. Any representation by anyone throughout history is a lie. Do we want to worship a lie?
Even in the Holy of Holies there was no representation of God, and the altar was of simple turf or unhewn stones (Exodus 20:22-26). A meaningful lesson exists in this: From God's perspective, because man always infuses human nature into the objects of his worship, he always tends to ruin whatever he touches in his relationship with God. This is not good because the worshiper can rise no higher than the god he worships.
Numbers 33:51-52 clarifies this:
Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: "When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their engraved stones [pictures, KJV], destroy all their molded images, and demolish all their high places."
We should understand this in a religious sense since any representation of God changes Him from what He really is. Egyptians worshiped oxen, heifers, sheep, goats, lions, dogs, cats, monkeys, ibis, cranes, hawks, crocodiles, serpents, frogs, flies, scarab beetles, the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, fire, light, air and darkness. And they could come up with "good" reasons why!
A young man once said to me that he could see nothing wrong with the Christmas tree because he did not bow down and worship it. He misunderstood. Do we? The first commandment covers this particular aspect of idolatry. If one was bowing down to the tree, that would be what he was worshiping.
The second commandment has to do with the way we worship, in spirit and truth. Christmas—and its trappings like the Christmas tree—is not part of the way God commanded we worship. It is not part of the truth of God. Therefore, the Christmas tree is a component of an idolatry created when man desires to worship God as he devises rather than as God instructs. So he breaks the second commandment even though he never bows down to the tree.
The Golden Calf
Exodus 32:1-5 contains a brief story of a very significant idolatry Israel created as they journeyed through the wilderness:
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, and make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, yours sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD."
As this episode began, the people were not really asking for a change of gods, but rather a new human leader. Moses had borne much of the brunt of Israel's discontent, and now he had disappeared! In their impatience, they wanted to entrust their leadership to one who could make a god. But this highly offended the true God and Moses! To them the golden calf was an attempt to redefine God's nature and control Him according to their desires.
In like manner, the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches say the ornaments, icons, crucifixes, Madonna statues and Christmas trees are only to keep God in mind. But this is the same principle involved in Exodus 32! It is not long before people associate the image with God.
In the Golden Calf episode, the first and second commandments were directly broken. Aaron proclaimed it "a feast to the LORD." The churches say, "These things are dedicated to worshiping God." The true God says in verses 7-8 that they had "corrupted themselves . . . and worshiped it." This sounds like today's Christmas observance. The people corrupted themselves by redefining God's nature and His way of worship according to their desires and ends.
Mark 7:7-9 is a New Testament reference to the principles involved in these commandments. Jesus joined battle with such supplements to God's way:
And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do. . . . All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.
People keep the traditional holidays in God's name, but He is not pleased with them or in them.
The Pharisees' outward appearance of piety was a lie because it was not accompanied by total commitment to the true God's way. Their traditions distorted the law of God—and thus the very image of God because the law is a description of God's character. God's true holy and righteous character is the image of Him He wants us to bear and follow. Thus, Christ repudiates every addition, subtraction and distortion men elevate to a specious "divine" authority. Their use breaks the second commandment because they are not part of the way God instructs us to worship Him.
"Your Appointed Feasts"
Isaiah 1:13-14 shows another example of how serious God is about this:
Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them.
In the past we have explained these verses by referring to the word "your," indicating they were not keeping His appointed days. This clearly indicates idolatry. But what if God refers to His true Sabbaths and festivals, but His concern is with the way people kept them?
This is a very distinct possibility. The crowds of people were in a festive mood, yet God rejects their worship. To Him their "holiness" was a sham. Since God calls their sacrifices "futile" and their incense "an abomination," the spiritual basis of their worship must be profane. The broader context shows these people had the morals of alley cats! Their eyes were hot with lust and greed; their fortunes had been built on crime. They were envious, murderous, deceitful, stingy, filled with hate and gossip—yet on the Sabbaths they appeared before God as if everything in their relationship was just fine!
What kind of idea of God had they conceived to think that He would accept such conduct? Their worship merely went through the motions with punctilious observance of the Sabbath and rituals. Obviously, the god they conceived was not the true God because He is more concerned with right relationships than scrupulous regard for ceremony.
They broke both the first and second commandments: They conjured up their own image of God and then worshiped in the name of the true God as they saw fit. Worship is the reaction to one's god at all times and cannot be separated from character and attitudes. The true God cannot be fooled.
Forms of Idolatry
Isaiah 2:5-20 mentions a number of idolatries that are just as present in our society today as they were Isaiah's time. Enslaved by the superstition of astrology, they were more concerned about what the omens read than the judgment of God (verse 6). They craved the power of money and the recognition and influence it drew, and took enormous pride in their military, political and economic sway in the world (verse 7). They worshiped "the work of their own hands" (verse 8).
The underlying motivation for these idolatries is exposed in verses 11: "The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down" (see verses 12, 17). Pride brings forth idolatry, and its destruction is idolatry's cure. Pride elevates its owner to find God and His ways as unnecessary, too restrictive, boring or beneath his intelligence, station or needs. It leads him to choose his own way, be his own man and do his own thing according to his judgment. In short, even if a person of pride knows of God's way, he will not submit to worship God in the way He wants.
The most obvious form of idolatry is the worship of a false god using a material representation, an idol. The idol usually does not begin as the god, but as a symbol of the god. Its function is to make the worship of the god easier. But it usually does not take long before people cannot worship the god without the symbol. From this point, it is a short step to the symbol itself being worshiped.
A second kind occurs when a person deludes himself into thinking that as long as he is sincere, he can adapt almost any practice to Christianity, regardless of its origin. This is what Aaron and the Israelites tried to do in the Golden Calf incident; what modern "Christians" do when they insert Christmas, Easter, and Halloween; and what the Jews did by inserting a multitude of unscriptural rituals into the worship of God. In effect, these people created their own religions.
A third form of idolatry is an offshoot of the second, but it is more involved in secular areas than religious ones. It has an almost endless list of possible gods. People make a god of money, athletics, hobbies, traveling or whatever they devote almost their entire lives to. These people may exclude God from their lives entirely because they simply have no time for Him.
This third one directly breaks the first commandment, but we must consider it here because it very definitely affects the way we worship. Notice the sobering ramifications of Colossians 3:5: "Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." Covetousness is the unlawful desire to possess. A person sets up an idol in his mind when he wants to possess something and then devotes himself to achieving it.
Covetousness Is Idolatry
How many times have we heard or used the expression, "I just love such and such." Most of the time it is just a figure of speech we use to express a more-than-casual affection for or delight in something. Unfortunately, that desire sometimes crosses the line and develops into sin. It drives us to spend much of our life seeking to satisfy that delight or affection. What a person loves he sometimes covets. If what he covets—loves or worships—is less than God, the person is a practical idolater.
Jesus warns, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). He implies money, but the principle includes anything of such importance—apart from the Kingdom of God and His righteousness—that achieving it dominates our thinking, planning and conduct. If it shapes our existence, we have a false god. The desire to "get" this thing replaces the devotion we should give to God and forces us into sins in other areas. Thus, we become an idolater.
Paul writes in Ephesians 5:5-6:
For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
These verses clearly point to the seriousness of idolatry, but few seem to understand that the essence of idolatry is the worship of the self. The young man who saw no harm in Christmas trees knows the truth about Christmas, but he holds his opinion higher than the truth of Christmas' origins and intent. His words also reveal that he did not understand the meaning of "bow down" or "serve" in regard to this commandment. Bow down means "to bend the neck or waist," but when applied to a situation as in this commandment, it means "to give reverence, worship, give assent or submit." Serve means "to work for, promote the interests of, aid, help, obey, wait upon or satisfy the requirements of."
The ramifications of this are almost endless; it could involve every other commandment that men habitually break through lust. Suppose we ask God for something He has promised, such as prosperity. Prosperity is good; He wants us to be prosperous. However, if our desire for prosperity becomes greater than the desire to submit to the way God says we must live to be prospered, we will use a carnal means to acquire even the promised good thing. Abraham and Sarah used this justification in attempting to bear the promised son through Hagar. Their reasoning, combined with a weakening of their faith, led them to follow their own way over God's. An idolater serves himself at the expense of obeying God.
Jeremiah 17:5, 7, 9-10, frames this sin in a different and picturesque way.
Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD. . . . Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is the LORD. . . . The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.
Remember, the first commandment deals with what we worship and the second with the way we worship. Christianity is a way of life designed to show the way God would live if He were a man. It will produce right relationships and thus peace and prosperity. If we live this way through God's Holy Spirit, it will also produce godly character, and God will fashion us in His image.
If all God were trying to do is save us, then it would not matter how we lived, except for what our way of life produced while we still lived in the flesh. But God is Creator. He is not just sitting on His throne, idly watching the activities of His creation. He made this creation for His children; it is our inheritance. He is actively creating us in His image. To make this happen, He gives us free moral agency, making us responsible to Him and to each other for our actions and what we produce by the way we live.
In the book of Acts, Luke refers to Christianity as "a way" or "the way" nine times. It is the way of salvation, and only it will produce the results God wants in relationships, peace, prosperity and character. When ingredients foreign to this way are introduced into it, the new, syncretistic "Christianity" will not produce the desired results. This does not mean that every infraction of this way will cause us to lose salvation. It does mean, though, that God desires each of His children to grow and overcome to his greatest potential.
A person breaks the second commandment when he exalts himself against God by trusting in his own or another's reasoning and lives that way rather than the way God ordained and commanded. As Jeremiah 17:9 warns, "The heart is deceitful above all things." Too often, it is easily led to satisfy its own desires rather than follow revealed knowledge. But God faithfully searches and tests our hearts to rid us of all idolatries so we will follow His way as closely as possible.
Satan plays an enormous role in producing this sin. II Corinthians 4:4 confirms that he is "the god of this age [world]." Ephesians 2:1-3 teaches that we all, as children of disobedience, have submitted ourselves to "the prince of the power of the air." He deceives some through intellectual rejection of God or His way. Others he snares through the highly sensual festivities of Christmas, Easter, Halloween and the like. He has been extremely successful.
Forsaking Our Way
Proverbs 21:2 reads, "Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts." Proverbs 16:25 adds, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." Finally, Isaiah writes, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isaiah 55:7).
Ignorance or rejection of the way of God leads us to break the second commandment. Dedication to the knowledge of God is its solution. The person who really knows Him and His awesome purpose—because he communicates with Him in prayer and study and experiences the keeping of His commands by the power of His Holy Spirit—is worshiping Him in spirit and truth. That person has a good understanding (Psalm 111:10). He does not need representations to aid him because he is coming to know Almighty God personally.